Paul Celan's "Deathfugue"

Resource Kit by
Michelle Friedman

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Paul Celan is widely regarded as one of the major German-language poets of the twentieth century. He was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Czernovitz, Romania, to German-speaking Jewish parents. In 1942, about a year after the Nazis invaded Romania, his parents were deported to a Nazi concentration camp, where both perished; meanwhile, he was imprisoned in a forced labor camp, where he remained until his liberation by the Red Army in 1944. After the war, Celan moved first to Bucharest and then, in 1947, to Paris, where he remained until his suicide in 1970. 

“Deathfugue,” perhaps the most well-known of Celan’s poems, emerged from his experiences during the war and was first published in 1947. Like many survivors, he gave almost no factual testimony during his lifetime; his poetry therefore constitutes the bulk of his writings on his time in the camp. Distinguished by stark imagery and sonorous repetition, the poem contrasts the power of the Nazi masters with the impotence of the Jewish prisoners. Originally written in German and titled “Todesfuge,” this poem addresses the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the limitations of language and representation in its aftermath.

This kit provides resources to aid in a close reading of the poem, in addition to material and activities that will deepen students’ understanding of the poem by exploring it through a variety of lenses, including literary allusions, music, translation, and art.

Cover image: Photograph of Celan, courtesy of ullstein bild Dtl. via Getty Images.